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The role of the health care professional has seen its fair share of evolution throughout history. Shamans and healers in ancient societies paved the way for modern medical professionals, who have a duty to society as a whole that spans well beyond diagnosis and healing. Medical doctors today are expected to exhibit professionalism as well as effectively communicate with patients and colleagues, and conduct plenty of research.
And for optimal patient care, that research isn’t confined to information directly related to the health care industry. Health care professionals must also remain on top of current events, and be aware of the various societal issues that can shape both medicine and public policy, such as immigration. In this regard, health care workers often double as agents of societal change.
As the Hippocratic oath remains a crucial part of modern medicine, ethical considerations are of paramount importance in the health care arena. Whether you’re a primary care provider, registered nurse, anesthesiologist, or another type of health care worker, you’re in a prime position to advocate for immigrant families. You may be unequipped to help immigrant families in a legal or political capacity, but your direct health care efforts may ultimately catalyze societal change.
Medical Care for Immigrant Families
It’s important to note that the needs of immigrant families may differ drastically based on the citizenship status of family members. And the terminology itself doesn’t necessarily tell the entire story: Children who were born in the U.S. but have at least one foreign-born parent are typically identified as children in immigrant families (CIF). As of 2019, an estimated 1 in 4 children in the U.S. can thus be considered CIF, but their social determinants can vary considerably.
For instance, immigrant family members who are legal U.S. citizens can access the same health care benefits afforded to all Americans, including Medicaid and Medicare. Undocumented immigrants, however, are much less likely to have any type of health coverage. These individuals are subsequently more vulnerable to chronic health issues and contagious viruses including COVID-19.
According to the American Medical Association (AMA), approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants are living in the United States. What’s more, “physicians and other health professionals should be aware of how to advocate for these patients, including through self-education, education of trainees, in the exam room, and on Capitol Hill.” A large number of undocumented immigrants tend to avoid seeking medical care, even if it’s urgent, due to fear of deportation or the intervention of government agencies.
Politically speaking, the subject of illegal immigration is a contentious one. Yet it’s crucial to remember that, for many families and individuals, immigrating isn’t exactly a choice. Many immigrants to the U.S. are refugees seeking asylum, or humanitarian protection, from persecution or war in their home countries. Asylum seekers are subject to a lengthy immigration process, and there is a governmental cap on the number of refugees admitted on an annual basis.
The Importance of Immigrant Health Care Workers
As a health care worker, it may behoove you to learn a little bit about the immigrant families that you serve to better address their needs. But you should also look to your colleagues for guidance and inspiration: Plenty of immigrants are gainfully employed in the health care industry. According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), about 2.6 million immigrants are employed in various health care fields, including approximately 1.5 million doctors, registered nurses, and pharmacists.
Unfortunately, immigrant health care workers tend to be underappreciated, yet this segment of the workforce is invaluable in the realm of disaster response. In 2021, disaster response is heavily focused on curbing the spread of COVID-19, but the discipline encompasses much more, notably natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires. Within disaster response, the humanitarian side of health care is heavily emphasized, as disaster survivors often require social services — to access food and emergency housing, for example — in addition to medical care.
Similarly, immigrant families may have similar psychological and humanitarian needs, even far removed from disaster response scenarios. Health care professionals from immigrant families are well-equipped to address these sorts of needs among their patients, especially if they have personal experience in seeking legal asylum, or securing stable housing and job opportunities.
Looking to the Future: From Telemedicine to Health Care for All
No matter your background, as a health care professional, you’re likely well-versed in the various social determinants that can influence one’s health and well-being. The conditions and places that one is born and raised in, widely known as social determinants of health, overwhelmingly correlate to individual health, as well as that of entire communities.
Even those social determinants that are directly related to economics and education can have a significant impact on individual health, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. In regards to social determinants, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that “for many people in racial and ethnic minority groups, living conditions may contribute to underlying health conditions and make it difficult to follow steps to prevent getting sick with COVID-19 or to seek treatment if they do get sick.”
The good news is that, as a health care provider, you can help bridge the gaps among your minority and immigrant patients, and telemedicine is an ideal starting point. In a world under the threat of a deadly pandemic, telemedicine has become a crucial component of health care. While you can’t treat serious conditions solely via telehealth, the platform is extremely versatile. Telemedicine can streamline patient monitoring as well as the appointment setting process, reducing the need for multiple visits or a lengthy commute to a hospital or clinic. Further, simple tests such as vision exams can be conducted safely and easily using telehealth.
And signs indicate that telemedicine is likely here to stay, post-pandemic, as it can help generate revenue in health care facilities ranging from major research hospitals to local clinics and private practices.
Although revenue is certainly relevant in every corner of the health care industry, caring for patients is still the ultimate goal. As a health care professional, you may find that advocating for your patients is just as important as administering quality health care. Determining the individual needs of your patients, whether immigrants or natural-born citizens, can ultimately serve to improve public health overall, and give you greater satisfaction that you’re truly making a difference in the world.